Thursday, 28 September 2017 10:34 AM BST
The second coming of Barty

The Ashleigh Barty who won the 2011 Wimbledon junior singles title as a shy, slightly overwhelmed 15-year-old prodigy, and was almost lost to the game just three years later, is vastly different from the relaxed, assured current version who is on the cusp of a top 30 breakthrough late in her first full year on tour.

The sublimely talented Australian first came to notice on the All England Club lawns while still a schoolgirl, then returned just 12 months later as a singles wild card and reached the doubles final with Casey Dellacqua. “Some of my favourite memories are from Wimbledon,’’ she says, except that it was all too much, a little too soon. Indeed, only now is Barty as comfortable in her skin as she is with her clever, creative and rapidly-improving game. 

After struggling with the demands, challenges and intrusions of life on the circuit, it took a 20-month break in 2015-16, and a brief dalliance with cricket in Australia’s domestic Women’s Big Bash League, to remind Barty that tennis was her true sporting love.

So what, at 21, would she advise her 15-year-old self now, with the benefit of both maturity and hindsight?

“It’s a tough one, because I think I learnt a few hard lessons in those next couple of years and I didn’t handle it as best as I could, and I think that was a big part of the reason why I took a break,’’ Barty told wimbledon.com after claiming a maiden top 5 win against Karolina Pliskova to reach the semi-finals of the Dongfeng Motor Wuhan Open.

“But I think I’m much better for it now, and if I could talk to myself when I was 15, I think it would just be to relax and enjoy and just play with some freedom.

"I just learnt my lessons. This time around obviously it’s a lot more enjoyable when you are having success, but even the matches where we haven’t come away with the win, I’m still able to walk off the court pretty happy with the way I went about it; it wasn’t just (about) the result.’’

Still, results are taking care of themselves. Barty started the season ranked 271st, with the goal of finishing inside the top 100. She was there by March, after winning the Malaysian Open title from qualifying, before a second final in Birmingham after defeating Garbiñe Muguruza en route.

More recently, a debut top 10 victory over Venus Williams in Cincinnati in August was followed by consecutive wins over Johanna Konta, Agnieszka Radwanska and Pliskova in Wuhan. In doubles, she teamed up with Dellacqua to reach the final at Roland Garros and qualify for the WTA Finals in Singapore. 

“Ash is a different player this time round and that break she had from tennis was extremely important for her,’’ says Dellacqua, her close friend and mentor.

“I think it was a great decision, and something that she needed to do. She’s happy, and just in a lot better space.’’

Barty is also far more consistent, physically fitter and stronger, and proving she can beat the top echelon she aspires to join.

“Yeah, that’s obviously the goal, and we’ve got to keep putting ourselves in these positions every week to try and learn and do the best that we can against these top players. That’s where you can really test yourself and that’s what we enjoy the most about the sport.’’

Enjoy. A key word for a player so heavily hyped in her homeland that, by the age of 14, former Queen’s Club champion Scott Draper was among those noting a similar court craft to Martina Hingis but a potentially more powerful game.

There were already shades of Hana Mandlikova, but with a better serve, apparently, and indigenous newspapers hailing “the next Evonne Goolagong”.

Instead, she is the first Ash Barty. Here for a second time, thriving, and thrilled to be.